Belfast Telegraph

Why we're in need of our own Kremlin crusader...

By Paul Connolly

The peoples of two countries own a great deal of gratitude to a man called Bill Browder. First of all, there are the citizens of Russia. And then there are the people of the UK.

Actually, I need to correct the latter sentence. It's the people of the UK, excluding Northern Ireland. But more of that later.

As the super-wealthy boss of Hermitage Capital Management investment fund, Mr Browder is not  immediately a figure you'd expect elicits much sympathy from ordinary folk.

But Bill Browder is different. He is at the centre of a long-running and dangerous feud with the government of Vladimir Putin.

It's a complicated affair, but essentially Mr Browder, after 10 years of doing business in Russia, was blacklisted as a "threat to national security".

According to The Economist, this was because he interfered with the flow of money "to corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen accomplices".

Corruption allegations in Russia aren't new, but the Bill Browder affair degenerated into a spectacular morass of claim and counter-claim.

Infamously, his colleague Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian auditor and accountant, died on remand in a Russian jail after a life-threatening medical condition was not treated in spite of warnings.

Equally infamously, in July this year, Magnitsky was convicted of tax evasion, believed to be first trial in Russian history involving a dead defendant. It was state revenge of a most bizarre kind.

At the same trial in July, Bill Browder was convicted in absentia of tax evasion. Interpol has rejected Russian requests for his arrest, saying the case against him was "predominantly political".

Mr Browder has done the people of Russia a great favour by exposing official gangsterism and human rights violations.

So where does the UK come in? On Monday a London judge threw out a defamation case against Mr Browder from one of the names on the Magnitsky list, who said he had been libelled by comments on a website and in a TV interview. It was ruled that the case should have been brought in Russia, as the plaintiff's connection with Britain was "exiguous" (insufficient).

That ruling – and another this week involving a Serbian national – are being seen as denting London's reputation as a libel hub for rich and powerful plaintiffs misusing the UK's libel laws.

Mr Browder's solicitor, Mark Stephens, said the judge has "extracted the English common law to dis-incentivise other libel tourists to come here, because he has gone further in developing the law than the new Defamation Act.

"It's truly a brave judgment and the first time since the Human Rights Act that this area of the law has been reviewed."

So Mr Browder has now done the citizens of the UK a favour. But Northern Ireland? Alas, we don't count.

Our outdated libel system, and the refusal of the Stormont Executive to extend the new Defamation Act to the province, means we could well become a new destination for libel tourists, as some here have actively advocated.

Concerns about this development were cited in both the Financial Times and Guardian this week. Any such outcome would be bad for democracy, bad for the law and bad for the reputation of Northern Ireland's already-tainted legal system.

We need more Bill Browders to stand up for free speech.

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